I am not normally an emotional person. Since my days of the post-Katrina FEMA offices to assist with disaster communications to standing up the Louisiana National Guard Headquarters in an Army Base in Baton Rouge, I have dealt with more than my fair share of crisis situations. Even in evacuating the Capital Building for Test, Training, and Exercises after 9/11, literally taking thousands of staffers, Congressmen, and Senators out of their offices to safe locations, and watching the fear creep back into their faces from as they remembered the shock of that horrible day, I was able to keep composure throughout the event. There is something radically different here at Saint John the Evangelist these past days however. My heart is overwhelmed by the love, the support, and the service that has been overflowing from our Parish Family. If you will indulge me for a few moments, I would like to extend my gratitude to several groups and families that have lived out our mission even in the midst of all the destruction and damage we have endured.
First, I want to thank our Parish Staff, especially our Facilities Team. They were the first ones to come back to the campus after Irma, and immediately started the clean-up to make our church safe to begin Masses and services as quickly as we did. St. John is the second worst impacted parish in the Diocese, and our staff cleaned the Memorial Garden, the church and as much as we could so people could visit their loved ones and join back in our community, even without power. God was with us. There was catastrophic damage to the trees around our Memorial Garden and one large branch impaled a section of our plots 3 feet into the ground, but it landed directly between the spots and did not even scratch a single headstone or touch the remains below them. The staff have since continued to work out of the church as best we can to serve our Parish Family with critical needs and have stepped up to help with the donation process as well, driving water, food, diapers and all our gifts out to Immokalee and East Naples, where the need continues to be urgent. From communication to back breaking labor, we are so blessed to have our amazing staff committed to our mission.
Next, I need to thank the countless volunteers that have dedicated their lives to supporting our service to the community these past 2 weeks. We have had over 100 people gathering, sorting, prioritizing, and then moving donations from our Parish Family out to those in need. We fed families at Naples Park Elementary with FEMA meals. We distributed water and ice for the local community with the assistance of FPL and our local Commissioner, Andy Solis (and his wonderful assistant, Angela Goodner). We stuffed Power Pack meals for youth that need food on the weekend when they are not in school for the free and reduced lunch program. We have Lectors, Ushers, and Eucharistic Ministers that served in our church even without power and Air Conditioning. Everyone in our Parish Family has stepped up, especially the Knights of Columbus. They have been here every single day for our Donation Center, making sure that we can get the needs met all over the area. Our second collection this past weekend was over $40,000 for Hurricane Irma Relief efforts right here, that is spectacular. Many more have given the needed items that have continued to keep our Donation Center filling trucks and vans every single day. There are so many names to thank that we will need an entire page next week to showcase just how many people deserve all our gratitude.
I also want to thank the many organizations we have partnered with in order to serve the community. The Ritz Carlton donated over 7,000 bottles of water which we used our box truck to get to Immokalee. Collier County Emergency Management and the District 2 Commissioner assisted with water and ice donations right here on campus for Naples Park. Florida Power and Light, ServPro, Crowther Roofing, Bonness, Inc., and Gates Construction have all prioritized St. John to get our campus functioning again as quickly as possible. Thank you to all these organizations that are working for us and for the community.
We all owe the clergy of St. John our gratitude for their pastoral leadership and support during this difficult time. I know they have been working non-stop to comfort and engage our Parish Family. Fr. Bob even went and blessed a house the day before the storm. We are so blessed to have such dedicated and devoted priests and deacons.
Finally, I want to thank my family. I have been a preoccupied husband and father these past few weeks, with my focus being directed for our entire Parish Family. My children came back with me to the church as soon as the storm cleared and helped with cleaning up the campus. Ben, Jack, Julia, and Stella have been helping every day until they went back to school with the Donation Center. My wife Donna is literally a saint for dealing with me, taking care of our family and our home, and on top of all that, she has been going to Saint Peter the Apostle on a daily basis with van loads of diapers and wipes for the children and adults of East Naples. Father G there now calls her “The Diaper Lady”. I am blessed and honored to call her my wife, my soulmate, and my heart and soul.
I cannot truly express the love and gratitude I am feeling for our Parish Family and all those who have put our Mission: To Know, To Love, and To Serve God in His Church and Our Community into motion even in this challenging time. God Bless You All!